Monasticism as a nursery of the mendicant movement
Because the mendicant movement grew from monastic roots, it is helpful to know about the development of the monastic tradition in the Christian Church.
The book, Life of Saint Anthony, by Saint Athanasius (295 – 373 AD) introduced Christian monasticism to Europe. It inspired thousands there to move to the desert and adopt a monastic lifestyle. (Athanasius composed the Athanasian Creed against the Arian heresy. He also was present at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 when the Nicene Creed was officially adopted by the entire Church).
Although Saint Anthony of Egypt (251 – 356 AD) is sometimes called the first Christian monk, this is obviously not correct. After Anthony was converted to Christ and moved out to the deserts of Egypt to follow God, he wrote that there were already hundreds of others there, living the monastic life. All of this was taking place around 200-350 AD. This "first wave" of monks, and was distinguished by asceticism and physical solitude. In fact, the word, monk, comes from the Greek word monachus, meaning "alone." These first Christian monks in the desert could be called "religious hermits." Eremitical monasticism refers to monks who dwell alone ("eremites" or "hermits"). This was the original Christian monasticism, and was exemplified in the life of Anthony.
It was a monk named Pachomius (c. 292 – 346 AD), a contemporary of Anthony, who then formed a second style of monastic life. Pachomius gathered monks into a monastic community – still in a desert place, as it happened. Monks who lived in communities were no longer isolated eremites (hermits), but were called "cenobites". The members of the community of Pachomius were still monks, i.e., "alone", in the sense that they withdrew to life in their small community, and still geographically quite separate from the everyday world and intentionally still "apart" from the average daily existence around them. Cenobitic monasticism, therefore, existed in the case of Pachomius in about the year 325, and Saint Jerome translated the Rule of Pachomius from Greek into Latin in about the year 404 AD. At the time of his conversion in Milan in the years 386-387, Augustine was aware of the life of Saint Anthony in the desert of Egypt. He mentioned him in his Confessions. As will be further detailed later in these pages, Augustine became fascinated by the life of these monks. He regarded that a life of prayer in the desert was most praiseworthy and sacrificial, but, even so, in his gregarious nature he did not feel called to the desert.
Upon his return to Africa as a Christian in the year 388, however, Augustine and a few Christian friends founded at Thagaste a lay community. They became cenobites (a community of monks) in the countryside, rather than cenobites in the desert. Here was another significant development. Augustine and his followers became rural cenobites, rather than desert cenobites. Augustine had withdrawn from the city of Milan, resigned his position as a teacher, and was content to live a life of study and Christian reflection in the rural surroundings of his birthplace. He had withdrawn from the world as much as possible, yet without going geographically to a desert. When he was prevailed upon by the people of Hippo to become their priest and later their bishop, Augustine determined to continue with the monastic life as much as possible. The priests who served with him became members of his monastic community. Indeed, he accepted nobody as a priest in Hippo who was unwilling to live the monastic life. Augustine commenced an "active" or "apostolic" monastic style of life, in which participants actively served the church. This would be an important characteristic of the mendicant movement eight hundred years later.
Saint Benedict (c. 480 – 547 AD) lived for many years as a solitary hermit in a cave near Subiaco, Italy. He was asked to be head over several monks who wished to change to the monastic style of Pachomius by living in community. Between the years 530 and 560, he wrote the Rule of Saint Benedict as a guideline for monks living in community. In comparison with the Rule of Augustine (of 13 chapters, and written about the year 397), the Rule of Benedict (73 chapters) was much more detailed. Here was monastic community more structured than what Augustine had modelled while at the same time being responsible for the ministry and administration of the Church in Hippo.
Although located in the countryside rather than in the desert a monastery following the Rule of Benedict was meant to be "away" from the distractions and turbulence of daily living. It was to be "enclosed" in a world of prayer, order and moderation in all things. Benedict established the monastery at Monte Cassino, where a Benedictine monastery still exists. It is the oldest continuously inhabited monastic community in Europe. The Rule of Saint Benedict became the Rule adopted by almost all monastic communities in Europe. (Exceptions were the Greek and Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, and the Celtic Christian Church in Ireland, which also allowed married monks. A few separate communities lived the Rule of Saint Augustine.)
It was the custom of most these early monasteries, whether Roman, Orthodox, or Celtic, to only have around twelve members. When another twelve had joined, they would be sent off to begin a second monastery. In later centuries, however, some individual monasteries changed this practice and had hundreds of monks. As well as these cenobite monks (i.e., living in community), eremitical ("hermit") monks still existed. For example, in the ninth century, Orthodox hermit monks (eremitic anchorites) began living on Mount Athos in Macedonia. In the year 963, Athanasios built there the great larva monastery that is still in use. There were hermit monks too in isolated areas of Tuscany in northern Italy in the thirteenth century. These were the source from which the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine arose, first in the Augustinian Little Union 1244, and more so in Grand Union of 1256.
With these men, and with others fifty years before them, the cenobitic (i.e., based on community) form of the monastic movement adapted with a pastoral need recognised by the Church, and evolved into the mendicant movement. Fifty years earlier, Saint Francis of Assisi had given up his possessions and went about preaching the Gospel and helping the poor people of Umbria. At the same time Saint Dominic de Guzman (1170 – 1221 AD) founded the Order of Preachers ("Dominicans"). In common with the Franciscans, they were monks who actively went about preaching, rather than only remaining in monasteries. This return to the "biblical monasticism" described in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles was obviously quite different to the Benedictine style of monasticism. The new terms, "friars," and "mendicant order" were used when referring to these new communities.
Pachomius of Egypt (c. 292 – 346 AD). A brief biography. http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/pachomius.php
The Rule of Saint Benedict. Online, with explanation. http://www.osb.org/rb/index.html#English